Shakespeare’s Othello: Still Contemporary after 400 Years

The story is a familiar one: a father cannot approve of his daughter’s elopement with a powerful and ambitious military leader, who, despite his respectability and his service to the powers that be, remains a social outcast due to his race. One of this leader’s trusted advisors, who feels that he has been passed over for a promotion, slowly poisons his superior’s mind, finally managing to convince him that his wife has been unfaithful with another of his favored advisors. Despite the woman’s valiant efforts to defend herself and her reputation, the story ends in tragedy for all involved. Shakespeare’s Othello plays on the familiar themes of ambition, jealousy, and racial intolerance to create a tragedy that builds to its inevitable crescendo through Iago’s masterful and unfeeling manipulation and Othello’s unfortunate susceptibility to manipulation.

Othello was staged—or rather, screened—as part of the British National Theatre’s series of performances recorded live in London and presented in one-night-only screenings at cinemas throughout Europe. If you can’t make it to London, this may be the next best thing.

Director Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Othello does not so much “update” a classic by adding modern elements as it does reveal the lasting relevance of the play itself. Shakespeare’s original lines seem oddly appropriate to the production’s contemporary settings: the corporate boardroom, the modular buildings of a military base somewhere in the Middle East. Rory Kinnear’s Iago is chillingly self-satisfied while Adrian Lester’s Othello is frustratingly willing to be misled. Olivia Vinall is powerful as Desdemona, and Lyndsey Marshal’s Emilia lends great dramatic energy to the latter half of the play. The scene in which Lester’s Othello succeeds in strangling Vinall’s Desdemona is so stark and wrenchingly visceral that it is difficult to watch.

If anything, this production gets a bit carried away in furnishing contemporary details. (For instance, why is someone drinking something in nearly every scene—a cup of Starbucks coffee, as well as numerous plastic bottles of water, and several cans of Heineken? Such details almost become part of the play’s plot themselves.) All in all, though, this was a powerful production of Othello, and a rare opportunity to catch Shakespeare “live” in Turku.
Justin Parks

Click here for further info on National Theatre Live at Finnkino. Next shows: Macbeth Nov 18, Hamlet Dec 2.

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